As of last week, Zynga's free-to-play Facebook social game Mafia Wars claimed 26 million active players, adding more than a million from the week previous. You might snort at Zynga's dubious count of "active players." If your Facebook friend mails you a Mafia Wars doodad and you accept it, boom! Zynga calls you a "player." But no matter how you boil it down, you're still looking at multitudes - you might even say "mobs" - of genuine participants, many of them playing online games for the very first time.
One among those new millions is my dear friend Deborah, sales manager at a Fortune 500 (actually, a Fortune 10) megacorp. Though she played Lode Runner and Tetris back in the day, she never thought herself a gamer. But oh, the astonished delight in her eyes, the missionary zeal as she showed me Mafia Wars. "Look at all the things you can do!" she said, clicking around a simple web-style layout of text, buttons and progress bars. It was charming, like watching an infant discover its own toes.
Deborah recruited me. Mafia Wars has become, so to speak, Our Thing. Through her, I became a small part of this huge and increasingly profitable enterprise. As Facebook has grown, Zynga has symbiotically kept pace, building revenue to $100 million this year and spending half of it on Facebook ads. TechCrunch, among many others, speculates Zynga is heading for an IPO. The company's success has brought glowing attention to social gaming from outlets like BusinessWeek and The New York Times.
Only later did I discover Our Thing is a lousy ambassador for the form. Like many new mobsters, I was lured in by the glamour - then saw the sleaze.
Mafia Wars is a stripped-down crack-cocaine distillation of a high-end 3-D MMOG, with levels, skill points, properties, loot drops, fights, wars and collecting. It gives you the same Skinnerian rewards, the same steady dopamine drip, but with no resource competition and little decision making. It's strictly click-to-advance. I reached Level 100 in five weeks - a mediocre pace, but it satisfies me. Like any MMOG team, the designers obviously want players to progress, but they address glitches and bottlenecks with unusual brute force. Advancement in the new Moscow section was slow, so one day the game suddenly dropped 30 million rubles on everybody, a bailout worthy of Ben Bernanke.
Unlike real mafiosi, Zynga's millions of new players know nothing of their family's long traditions. Though its turn mechanics owe something to old play-by-mail games like It's a Crime, Mafia Wars and other Facebook apps work more like the 1980s BBS door games Pimp Wars, Drugwars/Dope Wars and others. Like them, Mafia Wars is an open-ended, tick-based logistical race. It's asynchronous, meaning you needn't coordinate schedules with friends or opponents. You look in on the game once or a few times a day during dull meetings or conference calls, like checking your email - a few clicks and you're done.
It's not brainless, exactly. The design rewards good timing and permits varying strategies (fight, complete jobs, wage war). But compared to the animal street-gang struggles in GTA or Hitman, Mafia Wars is exceptionally forgiving. There's no danger your position will crumble if you leave it for a while, though it takes regular attention to maximize your progress. Which reminds me: I just accumulated 41 Energy and recently got two Speedboats, so now I can Steal an Arms Shipment (a Consigliere-level mission in New York) for 69 experience and $3,390,000. Be right back.